meryenda with Chef Nav and Chef Thirdy
On ferments and their restaurant Hapag, which recently earned a spot on 50 Best Discovery
Hello. Welcome to meryenda minutes, our monthly audio companion illuminating Filipino chefs, doers, farmers, scholars, artists, plus more with insight into their food and or beverage stories. Through this interview series, we aim to better bridge conversations with Filipinos spanning the homeland and the diaspora.
We hope this contributes to a flourishing of a much more interconnected community and enrichment of Philippine culture and cuisine.
To continue with this month’s theme of fermentation, I speak with chefs Thirdy Dolarte and Kevin Navoa of restaurant Hapag in Quezon City. We speak about important pivots for Hapag, Filipino-forward ferments such as pumpkin gamet miso and kadyos shoyu, as well as what they wish for in the future of fermentation in the Philippines.
As Chef Nav and Chef Thirdy so proudly expressed after receiving recognition on 50 Best Discovery, a platform by 50 Best that recommends dining and drinking destinations across the world: Mabuhay ang pagkaing Pinoy!
Jess: Before we kind of do a little bit of a deep dive into fermentation, I wanted to hear both of your backgrounds with food so maybe if you could start off by telling us your first memories with food.
Chef Nav: Personally, my first memories with food would have to be with my mom and my grandma. Because they used to have this bakery/restaurant out in San Diego. It was called Happy Bakery.
So we did this style of turo-turo type of food. My memories as a four year old would be like running around the kitchen when my mom was baking cakes, when my lola was also doing the lechon sauce in a really huge pot and how she would chop her vegetables while seated. She was like on a chair and just chopping, like seated down and that's a bit weird for me now when you think about it. Then my great lola would wash some of the dishes just because she wanted to. That's maybe some of my first few memories as a child. I just really loved eating a lot of chicharon bulaklak and mostly all these memories were in San Diego and the US every time we would visit every summer.
Chef Thirdy: Mine would be about fried eggs. When I was seven years old, I was being taught by my tita. She taught me how to cook. I remember frying eggs in a huge amount of oil. That's when I knew how to make a Filipino style— pritong itlog. So that's my first memory.
Jess: My first disaster in the kitchen was because of eggs. So that's good that you learned how to properly cook eggs. I didn't know you could burn oil and then burn eggs after that. Thank you for sharing.
Now you both run Hapag with an incredible, growing team. Can you both tell us a little bit more about its beginnings and how it's evolved to what it is right now?
Chef Thirdy: Hapag— we started as a private dining company. We used to do caterings at home and Nav and I used our home kitchen to prepare everything for our catering. We did that for a good two to three years. Then we opened the current space where we're at. It was supposed to be a commissary, but we allotted 20 seats for it to be a restaurant that could cater to groups below 10. From there I think the restaurant side just flew more than the catering, the private dining.
Chef Nav: Honestly we both think that the restaurant grew the most during the pandemic because we had a lot of time. We were able to think of the menu better. So now we just decided how do you want to serve people during this time. We thought about making sure that service is top notch, of course, making sure that the food that we create or make, you can't just make it at home; that you also had an experience attached to it. You can always remember certain things during your dinner: it's not just the food, but it was the energy, it was the music, it was ambience, it was basically everything, and more than just the food. Right now I think it's still evolving. I think it's evolving at such a fast pace that sometimes I can't even catch up with it in my mind, honestly.
Jess: A lot of the focus with the menu is Filipino flavors and ingredients. I wanted to ask if it was always like that. if you could both talk a little bit about how your experiences before Hapag played into what you're doing right now.
Chef Thirdy: Ever since we started Hapag, even before we were conceptualizing it, Nav and I talked about that we really wanted to open a progressive Filipino concept. What helped me to come up with the Hapag concept was my time at Benu. It was when I was so inspired. There they make Korean heritage food. They also use Asian techniques in a more progressive way. That helped me a lot and made me think: why can't we do thisFilipino style?
Jess: How did you decide which regions or which ingredients to highlight? Or is that something that's constantly evolving and changing as you've learned more?
Chef Thirdy: I think it's something that evolves and um, whatever we get our hands on. We try to use everything Filipino. Even until now we get surprised with local produce from Visayas or Mindanao and the journey is just beautiful. Getting our hands into local ingredients, to taste different Filipino ingredients that we're not familiar with.
Chef Nav: Personally I think it usually starts with an ingredient. Then we work our way sometimes backwards, see what works well with it, what we can do with it. Do we actually ferment it or do we just use it straight up because it's good on its own? Do we serve it fresh? There's a lot of things how we go about certain ingredients and how we use them on the menu. Sometimes it's just really what the mood is during that day. There's certain times where I notice Thirdy's palate changes or what he wants to eat. Sometimes what he wants to eat is just very simple food. There's no really fixed way of how we put things on the menu.
Jess: I guess going off of that, I am just curious, as you work with ingredients, is there one specific encounter or sourcing trip that stuck out to you in particular?
Chef Thirdy: So katmon is a native tree here in the Philippines. You can use it as a souring agent. So we're used to sampalok, to the tomato, but this one is a bit more refreshing in taste and gives you that strong acidity.
Jess: Where is it found usually? Is it found all over Luzon or is it particularly in a region?
Chef Thirdy: Everywhere in the Philippines.
Jess: I've heard of katmon, but I haven't gone out to look for it. But you definitely don't just find it in the grocery store.
Chef Thirdy: It's similar to batwan, so you're gonna remove the outer layer, you boil it, you mash it, and use for it to make sinigang.
Jess: Besides the focus on Filipino ingredients, you and your team also use a crazy range of ferments. My personal favorite is the kutsinta. You guys use the kadyos shoyu. When I go home, I'm going to have to request a box of that before I go back to the US.
I wanted to ask if you could go into the process of making the kadyos shoyu and also what drew you into using fermentation more at the restaurant.
Chef Nav: So we'll start with how we do the shoyu. Usually a shoyu is made out of soybeans. I realized we have so many beans to work with here in the Philippines. Then Thirdy suggested using kadyos in making my ferments. And then I just started using kadyos for the shoyu. We inoculate the koji onto the beans with toasted adlai. That type of grain, adlai, it's locally found here also. We inoculated with toasted adlai and cooked kadyos beans. After that we submerge it into a very salty brine, thus producing your shoyu or your soy sauce. For this one, we actually put some dried rose petals. So that just really adds another layer of flavor to the whole kutsinta experience. I don't know if you can tell, but there's just a slight floral magic that goes on.
What really drew me to fermentation is I started off with pickling stuff first, just because it was so easy to understand. Then I moved on to fermenting because I was so surprised with what you came up with as time went on. It only gets better through time, although sometimes it goes bad. Some things do go bad or go too sour, but it was just very cool to me that you can produce something that you can't actually use right away. The wait is also so cool to me. If you taste a ferment maybe once a week, you'll see how it changes color, flavor, how deep it tastes. And then sometimes you can use it differently as it ages. Let's say for example, a miso that you have that's a month old. You can use it for a soup. If you age it a bit more, it'll be actually be good for sofrito. There's just a lot of things that really intrigued me and I just kept going. Right now I'm at that level where I keep thinking of what's next. I honestly feel with the amount of ferments we have here, we're just scratching the surface. What drew me to fermentation was that cool waiting game.
The wait is also so cool to me. If you taste a ferment maybe once a week, you'll see how it changes color, flavor, how deep it tastes. And then sometimes you can use it differently as it ages. Let's say for example, a miso that you have that's a month old. You can use it for a soup. If you age it a bit more, it'll be actually be good for sofrito. There's just a lot of things that really intrigued me and I just kept going. —Chef Nav
Jess: At the restaurant, one thing I think that's also really cool is the wall of the ferments that you have and that openness with sharing the ingredients, the ratios. Why is that important to you, that open source knowledge when it comes to your ferments?
Chef Nav: I honestly think that people should be more open about these things or else it all dies. I don't want it to die with me.
With what I know, I want to be able to share that. I might not change anything about ferments. I might not change the world's minds about ferments, but maybe I can help or maybe spark that one brain that might just change something about ferments. Being open will just lead to more doors. So let's just say a kid comes to the door and I'm not open about it. They'd be like, alright, how does it grow? I can't find out about everything all on my own. I need someone to help me out. Just how Noma does it. I started reading the book and they were so open about it. They also want to share it and see what other people can come up with. Maybe I have some ferments here that Noma does not have. But it's because of the difference of produce we have here in Manila compared to what they have out in Denmark, or in Malaysia or in Japan. So I think it's really endless.
Jess: Have you had that experience where somebody came in, like a diner or a guest, and was like, "Oh, that's cool. What is it?"
Chef Nav: We've had a few. Some would come in and they'd be like, "This is so cool. What is it?" It's all ferments. Some would say, "So they're all rotten." I'm like, no they're not rotten… in a nice way. But some say it's rotting. My dad also told me before, “Oh, binibulok niya lang yan, or you know, he's just rotting certain things.”
My dad did his first fermentation maybe three weeks ago with sauerkraut. It was so cool cause he finally did it on his own. Just salt and that's it. So now he understands that you're just not rotting something anymore. It's actually evolution. We have a lot of people who come through our doors and say what that wall is. We try to explain that everything you see on this wall is actually on the menu. And some are actually fascinated with it because they see some mold on it and then they know it's actually on their food and actually tastes good. You already start to change people's minds with fermentation.
Jess: I'm one of those diners that was like, "Let me ask more questions." That's why we're here now. Can you go a little bit more into some of the ferments that you use and how you use some of those ferments to transform some of the dishes that you make for Hapag?
Chef Nav: When when I started doing my ferments, Thirdy did not really understand it right away. But then when I explained it to him, somehow he actually uses it really, really well.
Chef Thirdy: We can start with our new dish, which is a palabok. The usual palabok, you make a sauce made of aromatics, rice flour, achuete, and you finish it with stock, right? Usually prawn stock or chicken stock.
But what we're doing now is we're adding a depth of flavor using miso that's made out of pumpkin and gamet (dried edible seaweed from Ilocos Norte and Cagayan) seaweed. The process that Nav and I usually do is he makes the misos and any ferments. I try to utilize it and apply it in Filipino food. I think most Filipinos, they're not aware that they're using ferments like vinegars, patis, bagoong, buros. It's just amazing to see it unfold here in Hapag through Nav's vision of fermentation and applying it in Filipino cuisine.
Jess: A lot of the dishes that we typically eat does have some fermented component to it. The way that you have approached fermentation. Being more aware of the ingredients and how it can transform and then being thoughtful in how you can use the local stuff to make something out of it too. Using the same building blocks, but thinking of it differently, which is really cool.
I wanted to ask—going along with what [Nav] was saying— what's a ferment that you're most proud of and what was something that was like a complete disaster? Then for chef Thirdy: What's a dish using a fermented component that you're most proud of, and something that you tested but it was a complete disaster? Or it didn't work out the way that you thought it would.
Chef Nav: I can only think of really one bad experience with fermentation.
It was my first time maybe making the koji. I was just literally reading off a book, coming from Japan bringing koji. I really had to do my research on my own. I made a batch of rice and cooked it a normal way. You'd measure one-to-one rice [to water], cook it in a rice cooker. Then I started inoculating it, and it usually grows after two days. Once it was grown, it was all green. Of course, being the curious me, I had to try the mold. It was really bad. Yeah, that's the worst one. But I guess, it was a good way to start and learn that it's not as easy, but it's also not as hard if you think about it. The miso that I'm most proud of was ... there's so much I can't even say. That's very hard. It's like you have your favorite child, but like I feel like the monggo miso is really cool. The monggo is one of the best we had. The people out in San Francisco, Shared Cultures, they actually taught us how to make the monggo miso.
Chef Nav: Although the coolest for me would have to be the vegetable katsuobushi. We would inoculate the koji onto the carrots, dry them, and make them into vegan katsuobushi. So it's called vegetable-bushi. That's pretty cool too. And then recently, the one I started making with you, Jess, is the tempeh. I was actually able to make some burgers out of it. To answer your question, the munggo miso is one of the best and the pumpkin seed miso. Last would have to be the cashew nut miso. It's already developed a flavor: it's nutty, fatty, and just one hundred percent awesome.
Chef Thirdy: My favorite right now is the bread miso. Bread-so or bread-miso.
Chef Nav: That's really cool. That's leftover sourdough bread turned into miso.
Chef Thirdy: Right now in our lunch menu, we make a brown butter miso. We also add some Davao dark honey on top. I think it comes full circle because the bread that we serve with it, is the bread that we use for the miso.
My worst ferment was making patis. We used to serve fish in our menu. All the bones, without any ratio, I threw it inside a mega box, add water, add salt, and I left it in the fermentation rack. Once we opened it, it smells so bad. It doesn't even smell like patis.
Chef Nav: It just smells like rotten water.
Jess: Patis can go bad, that's good to know. I wanted to backtrack a little bit… who did you reach out to to start building some of the concepts that you have going on right now?
Chef Nav: It was actually hard to reach out to anyone because no one was doing it as much before. It was really reading the books and trying to understand the books properly. I realized that everyone is saying everywhere [in] books, even online, is that salt is your friend when you ferment. They say that "everything under the brine is fine." It's knowing to use a percentage of salt. I made a lot of mistakes fermenting. Then I would make sure to write them down and keep them somewhere so that when I ferment again, I actually know not to do this anymore and when to stop, when to keep going.
It was a, maybe an ongoing process for about a year to a year-and-a-half. Maybe now I would say that I safely understand and know how it behaves in a way. It's just really keep doing it over and over and over and over. Being obsessed with it is actually one thing because if you're not obsessed with it, you're gonna quit. Imagine if you have to wait six months for one ferment, another eight months, one year, two years. You're not going to get anywhere far if you're not patient and obsessed with fermentation.
Jess: With Kojicon, was there any takeaways from that? Was that your first time attending?
Chef Nav: There's so many people doing fermentation around the world. That's one [takeaway]. And everyone has their different ways in doing. I just realized that some do it in a very, very clean and precise way. Some do it through heart. There's so many ways other people do it, but they get the same result; it's just they actually work with what they have or where they live. Because [fermentation] actually varies a lot with temperature and I think our country is the best for that.
My takeaway from Kojicon would have to be—there's actually a Kojicon. Who knew there would be something called Kojicon? Or a group of people that love ferments, right? The big people who actually talk there are Sandor Katz ... David Zilber, Kirsten Shockey was there. Jeremy Umansky was there.
I think it's cool that a lot of people are super interested in mold.
Jess: I know that [fermentation] requires a lot of patience and mindfulness when it comes to doing it. Has this practice of fermentation changed the way that you approach food and your relationship with food in any way?
Chef Nav: It changed a lot of things, especially for Thirdy and I because he also now has to wait for a lot of the ferments to be working. He asks me, "Can I use this now?" I'm like give it about two more months. Right now we approach food very differently since we're very, I wouldn't say reliant on ferments, but we love using because it's very different and it tastes different and it actually highlights our cooking. The approach is very different now to what it was maybe three years ago. Right now we're just really in love with fermentation and how it makes our food a bit more special.
Chef Thirdy: It's like that added layer of flavor makes a big difference.
Jess: What do you hope for or want to see in the future of fermentation, in terms of the actual practice itself and with the way that people use it in the Philippines?
Chef Thirdy: For me, I would like to see chefs open up new layers of Filipino flavors when it comes to ferments. Like in Noma, they make roasted chicken garum. Why can't we make something like chicken inasal garum? Or we get the trims of Andok's and Baliwag and turn it into a garum? Right now, Nav's making some potato miso, right? Why can't we make kamote miso, something like kamote cue miso. Just thinking out loud, we get some mashed potatoes from from Miko Calo who makes it well. Then turn it into a miso. I guess there are lots of possibilities.
For me, I would like to see chefs open up new layers of Filipino flavors when it comes to ferments. Like in Noma, they make roasted chicken garum. Why can't we make something like chicken inasal garum? Or we get the trims of Andok's and Baliwag and turn it into a garum? —Chef Thirdy
Chef Nav: For me, I really don't know if I, I'd say that I want more people to do it. I worry that some people who want to do it will do it just for the sake of doing it and saying that they ferment stuff, but they don't actually like it. It's sad to say that I've had a few people come through these doors and say, "I want to learn ferments," and then when they actually do learn ferments, it's not for them. Because you're basically just mixing stuff up with a bunch of mold and you're waiting on them to be at the peak of their state.
Maybe what I'd like to see is someone steps up and educates people more about fermentation in general. Not just koji, about basically everything, so that they understand that you can actually do it at home with just some salt.
I don't know if this will sound too cheesy, but I understand that there's so much produce that is being wasted around the world. Let's just start with Philippines first. I understand there is so much produce that's being wasted, why can't we preserve it instead? I heard [of a farm that had] like kilos and kilos and kilos of really good tomatoes. And they were selling it for 10 pesos per kilo because they had so much. Then some just rot away. Why can't we do something about that with preserving or fermenting? If anything you can just make a shit ton of tomato jam, tomato water, [tomato] powder. There's so many things you can do with ferments, not just for restaurants and maybe that could save a lot of money for some.
Jess: I also agree fermentation is a way to preserve and enhance flavors, but it's also a way to learn how to make use of the abundance of the food that we have.
Any last minute thoughts or anything that you wanted to bring up that we didn't touch on about fermentation or about Hapag?
Chef Nav: Help us pave the way for Filipino cuisine by doing your part. If you're Filipino, please, please, please, please, please, cook Filipino food and try our food too.
Chef Thirdy: Hi, I'm Thirdy Dolatre. I'm currently based in Pasig City, Metro Manila. My current project is Hapag and a ferment that I would bring to potlucks would be strawberry sriracha or if you have sinigang, I'll bring the patis.
Chef Nav: Hi my name is Nav. I'm currently based in Manila and just like Thirdy, I run restaurant Hapag. Cooking gives me a lot of joy and fermenting gives me a lot of joy. My team gives me a lot of joy. Basically this whole industry gives me a lot of joy.
The ferment that I would bring to potlucks would be none of the ones I have here, but some really good kimchi. Kimchi works well in a pot luck. I don't think if I bring some misos to some potlucks people will understand what I'm doing. I think that's the safest one I can bring and maybe some shoyu or soy sauce that we made in-house.